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Dublin: 18 °C Sunday 31 May, 2020

Cullen's Leinster put their European crown on the line against resurgent Toulouse

The two most successful clubs in European club rugby history go head-to-head in a heavyweight semi-final showdown at the Aviva Stadium today.

AFTER ALL-TOO-FAMILIAR Munster heartache in Coventry, it’s over to Leinster to shoulder Irish hopes in Europe for another season as Leo Cullen’s side put it all on the line against a resurgent and dangerous Toulouse outfit.

This heavyweight Heineken Champions Cup semi-final [KO 3.15pm, Virgin Media/Channel 4/BT Sport] sees the competition’s two most successful clubs meet for the third time this campaign, but the latest instalment of their storied rivalry has all the makings of another Aviva Stadium epic.

Johnny Sexton Johnny Sexton is back to captain Leinster today. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Leinster have not yet hit top gear this season, arguably suffering more than most from Ireland’s deflating Six Nations, while the defending champions have failed to build the sort of cohesion and momentum Cullen would have liked since downing Ulster here at the quarter-final stage.

Hence, there are concerns over Leinster’s form, and indeed the rustiness of key players, no more so than the returning Johnny Sexton, while Toulouse pitch up in Dublin with no shortage of confidence, an embarrassment of attacking riches and the all-round armoury to derail the province’s title defence.

The Top 14 outfit have rediscovered their swagger and joie de vivre, the style of play so central to their four European crowns, and arrive for this afternoon’s last four tie having lost just two of their last 23 outings this term under Ugo Mola.

This is Leinster’s stiffest assignment since Racing in Bilbao last May.

“They’re probably the form team in Europe this season,” Cullen says of a rejuvenated French powerhouse. “They’re a team with great tradition and we know it’ll be a very tough day for us.”

This will be the 12th tournament meeting between Leinster and Toulouse, and two of those games have been at this last-four stage, with the French side winning the 2010 contest at Le Stadium before Leinster emerged victorious at this ground in 2011.

In both of those years, the winning side went on to lift the trophy.  

But since Toulouse won the last of their four titles, Leinster have lifted the Champions Cup three times and an 11th semi-final appearance puts them within 160 minutes of retaining their crown in Newcastle and a fifth European star.

En route, Cullen’s charges have won 15 of their last 16 Champions Cup games, with their only defeat in that period coming against today’s opponents back in round two in October. Leinster will have learned a great deal that day, specifically how not to play against a lethal Toulouse side that transition from defence to attack in devastating fashion.

The template for victory, therefore, will be based on their four-try victory over Mola’s side at the RDS in January, when Leinster — without a raft of internationals — displayed their champion quality to end Toulouse’s 12-game unbeaten run and seize control of the pool. 

Leinster utterly dominated that contest, using the physicality and work-rate of their forward unit to hammer the French visitors into submission around the fringes, while exerting control at the set-piece. They’ll look to do the same here. 

“How we manage possession is going to be hugely important,” Cullen remarks. “Our discipline too. 

Tadhg Furlong tackled by Joe Tekori and Dorian Aldegheri Leinster overpowered Toulouse at the RDS back in January, Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We think we’ve got a strong line-up out and there’s a lot of experience there. There are guys who have played a lot of big games in the past. Everyone is looking forward to it and we’re really excited to take Toulouse on again.” 

Cullen has rotated his resources in recent weeks and makes nine changes from the defeat to Glasgow Warriors last time out while Sexton’s return to captain the side is one of five alterations to the starting XV which edged past Ulster here in the last round.

Robbie Henshaw and Devin Toner are fit again and made their injury comebacks last week, Rob Kearney is restored at fullback and James Lowe is handed his first European start since Bath in round four before Christmas after Jamison Gibson-Park was ruled out through injury.  

Toner’s return to the second row means Scott Fardy is held in reserve, while Andrew Porter pulled up during the week and is replaced on the bench by Michael Bent, with Ed Byrne again preferred to Jack McGrath. 

Jordan Larmour, who is one of just five players alongside Toulouse’s Sofiane Guitoune to have played the maximum 560 minutes from seven tournament matches this season, starts on the opposite wing to Lowe, with Rhys Ruddock, Seán O’Brien and Jack Conan making up the back row.

As for Toulouse, Mola’s selection suggests the visitors are not coming here to be bullied up front again, and they will look to mix that defensive solidity — as shown in their quarter-final win at Racing — with a peerless attacking game and ability to counter-attack. 

The elusive and sublimely good Antoine Dupont starts at out-half and makes just his fourth senior start in the 10 shirt having started four pool games and the quarter-final at scrum-half, as Sébastien Bézy takes the nine jersey for the Rouge et Noir in Dublin. With Zack Holmes unavailable, this is undoubtedly Toulouse’s most potent half-back combination. 

The physicality of former Connacht centre Pita Ahki is preferred to Romain Ntamack in midfield, a selection Cullen admitted Leinster were not expecting, while Joe Tekori — who avoided a suspension for his dangerous tackle against Clermont last week — starts in the back row alongside captain Jerome Kaino and South African Rynhardt Elstadt.

All over the park, Toulouse have threats. Springbok Cheslin Kolbe has beaten 45 defenders, seven more than any other player this season, while three of the six players to make more than 12 offloads this season are in their starting XV — Guitoune [16], Tekori [16] and Thomas Ramos [12].

“We’ve gained a lot of confidence from the way we’ve played this year,” former All Black Kaino says.

Jerome Kaino Kaino speaking at yesterday's pre-match press conference. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“We’ve got a young team and the way they have been performing, it has been great for our team spirit and culture.

“For us, we just have to believe it’s 15 guys on the field versus another 15, we can’t get overawed by the challenge. We’ve got to believe in each other and we’re going to give it a good go.”

For all of Toulouse’s resurgence, this will be their big litmus test. Leinster’s quarter-final win over Ulster extended their winning run at the Aviva Stadium to 12 games, while they have won their last 14 home games in the Champions Cup. 

“Yeah, without a doubt it’s the biggest challenge in Europe,” Kaino continued. “It’s pretty much Leinster’s home ground and Leinster are a world-class team, they’ve got numerous internationals in their team and they’re defending champions as well.

“For us, we’ve got to stay positive and believe in what we’re doing and in our team. We definitely do. You can’t focus too much on what the challenge looks like, you’ve got to try and stay as tight as possible, believe in the game we want to bring out and hopefully the result goes our way.

Our defence will be huge but also when we get the ball, we’ve got to make sure we express ourselves in attack as much as possible.

And therein lies the danger for Leinster. They’ll need all their big-game players to hit the ground running and shake off any lingering rust, if the dream of a remarkable double-double is to remain alive here.

Either way, you’d be brave to bet against them.


15. Rob Kearney
14. Jordan Larmour
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton (captain)
9. Luke McGrath

1. Cian Healy
2. Sean Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Jack Conan


16. James Tracy
17. Ed Byrne
18. Michael Bent
19. Scott Fardy
20. Max Deegan
21. Hugh O’Sullivan
22. Ross Byrne
23. Rory O’Loughlin.


15. Thomas Ramos
14. Yoann Huget
13. Sofiane Guitoune
12. Pita Ahki
11. Cheslin Kolbe
10. Antoine Dupont
9. Sébastien Bézy

1. Clément Castets
2. Peato Mauvaka
3. Charlie Faumuina
4. Richie Arnold
5. Richie Gray
6. Rynhardt Elstadt
7. Joe Tekori
8. Jerome Kaino (captain)


16. Guillaume Marchand
17. Cyril Baille
18. Maks Van Dyk
19. Selevasio Tolofua
20. Piula Faasalele
21. Francois Cros
22. Romain Ntamack
23. Maxime Médard.

Referee: Wayne Barnes [England]. 

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Ryan Bailey

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